Thursday, July 24, 2008

Why the Tour Will Survive

Every year after cheaters are expelled from the Tour for doping, there is a quick backlash (especially online and especially outside of France) from a group of people who call for shutting down the Tour (click here for a recent example).

This type of response, however, presupposes that the race is of interest only as a race and that the most important aspect is winning (or losing).

Certainly, the competition is essential. It is also important that anti-doping agencies continue tracking down cheaters.

But more than perhaps any other sporting event, the Tour de France remains popular because it serves as an annual reminder of both France’s unity and its diversity. It brings in fans from all over Europe and the U.S. who view the event as a cultural spectacle first and as a sporting event second. One of the reasons I watch is to see places I’ve visited, places I’ve worked before, places I’d like to go some day.

The Tour has always stood as a means to celebrate regionalism while at the same time unifying France. In 1903, France's government was still struggling to unite all of France and bring the peasants out of their parochialism and integrate them as citizens of the Third Republic. Railways began bringing some isolated communities out of the middle ages, and roads did even more (Eugen Weber's book Peasants Into Frenchmen studies this transformation). The Tour was a perfect mechanism to validate the new network of roads and to allow the entire country to discover, via the newspaper, the cultural diversity of France. In addition, the Tour reinforced (and continues to reinforce) the fact that Paris remains supreme. This first Tour started and ended in Paris and the Tour has always ended in Paris, suggesting that Paris is the ultimate prize, the true center of the Republic.

In other words, the Tour will survive because--in addition to serving the interests of sponsors (who may fade away as a result of the doping scandals)--it also serves the interests of the French people, French regions (notice all the regional flags still constantly on display on the roadside of the Tour), the French government, and nostalgic francophiles throughout the world.


SM Sprenger said...

If that's really what the Tour is about, maybe France should cover the expenses of the riders and take the commercial and purely competitive interests out of it. My hunch is that the Tour is really now primarily a "delivery vehicle" for advertising, even if a big part of the advertisement is for France itself (regions, wines, cheeses, etc.) . Fact is: as long as there's big sponsoring and prize money linked to winning, and as long as the Tour remains an almost super-human task, doping will continue to be an issue. There's no way around this. And if we get more scenes like today with the cops caught on tape dismantling Schleck's van in search of drugs (surely there must be something here, non?), the cyclists are soon going to appear like innocent victims.

Corry Cropper said...

The Tour already does make money from the state, or more specifically, from the communes. Most start & ending cities/villages pay the ASO for the privilege of having the Tour spend time there. I wonder if the farmer who turns his bales of hay into cyclists pays the Tour to get their field on the air. In a way, though, since the Tour is broadcast internationally by France 2 and France 3 (state run stations), they have an interest in promoting the kind of cultural commodity France has become.

SM Sprenger said...

Two articles on doping in today's Le Monde:

On the morality or immorality of doping:

On the cycling culture of doping: